Monday, January 02, 2017

Bells Resonate in The Nine Tailors

The cause of death in Dorothy L. Sayers's detective novel The Nine Tailors (1934), not revealed until late in the novel, is so horrible to contemplate, that it exerts gravity over the whole story.

Until then, it's a cheerful fish-out-of-water comedyCar trouble strands urbane Lord Peter Wimsey among rustic folk of Fenchurch St. Paul on New Year's Eve, where he has no choice but to enjoy the hospitality of affable, addled rector Venables, and to participate in a festive ringing of the church's nine bells.  When a body turns up, Sayers gives the investigation a light touch. The inquest is presented comically, as we infer answers from ellipses between the officious examiner's questions (80).  Locals complain how "eddication" has made everything "mysterious" with "fillin' up forms" (98). A chamber pot, referred to with delicate obliqueness as a "bedroom utensil," concealed the necklace that inspired the original sin in this plot (115).

Levi Stahl, in the blog "Ivebeenreadinglately" acknowledges that the detection part of the story could have been handled in thirty pages, but, "Wimsey likes these people and their odd rural interests--and so do we, so neither of us is in a hurry to be shed of them. His having a mystery to solve gives us both an excuse to stick around for a while."

Sayers makes a game of integrating the action with the uniquely English tradition of "ringing changes" on church bells. Change ringers follow intricate patterns to ensure that no sequence of tones will repeat until all permutations have been sounded.  Sayers uses those patterns to create a secret message. She uses ringers' jargon for her chapters' titles, with amusing double-entendres, such as "Mr. Gotobed Is Called Wrong with a Double," and "Emily Turns Bunter from Behind."   A line from ancient ringer's manuals or Scripture often seems to have inspired the action of a chapter.  For example, the epigraph to the chapter "Lord Peter Dodges with Mr. Blundell and Passes Him" explains how "retrograde motion" is involved in "the hunt," which describes both a ringing pattern and a witness's filling in the back story to the crime.  Another epigraph quoting from I Kings about the space between cherubim and "costly stones" above (219), hints to us where Lord Peter will find an important clue.

(I wonder if Sayers's titles make sense as sequential moves in an actual peal?  If so, this would be a meta-fictional coup akin to the actual chess game that Lewis Carroll plays chapter by chapter in Alice Through the Looking-Glass.)

For all the humor and playfulness, The Nine Tailors also expresses what's dear in the Anglican Church to Sayers, daughter of a rector, who also published essays on the faith.  The rector Venables, forgetful, chatty, and fussy about the aesthetics of the church (48), nonetheless shows genuine concern for the soul of the unidentified victim. He drops what he's doing to administer last rites to one of the church's benefactors, but also to the dying infant of a poor mother.  Sayers goes into considerable detail to show Venables pulling the community together when a major flood is imminent.

Through Lord Peter's internal monolog, Sayers also comments upon the "genius" of the burial liturgy and upon the faith that motivated anonymous artisans who built the church and carved its cherubs (102).  She lavishes vivid description on the beauty of the countryside in spring (55) before she goes on rather too long to describe the flower guild's work at the altar (57).

Not just a plot device, the bells mean something for Sayers.  In her preface, she compares the "uproar of the internal combustion engine and the wailing of the jazz band" unfavorably to church bells, "the one loud noise that is made to the glory of God."  She waxes poetic describing the bells "rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes" (29).  She demonstrates how the bells have served their community broadcasting important messages.  For instance, the "tailor" bells ring nine times to signify the death of a man in the parish - "Nine tailors make a man" (60) - followed by the ringing of his age, informing folks for miles around which parishioner has passed; and the bells alert surrounding towns to floodwaters' approach.

In a memorable passage, when Lord Peter visits the belfry alone, Sayers gives us strong, unironic prose to give us a sense that the bells, even in stillness, resonate as if alive and waiting.
There he stood for a moment, gazing up into [the bells'] mouths.... Presently their hooded silence oppressed him.  A vague vertigo seized him.  He felt as though they were slowly collapsing together and coming down upon him.  Spell-bound, he spoke their names:  Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul.  A soft and whispering echo seemed to start from the walls and die stealthily among the beams.  Suddenly he shouted in a great voice: "Tailor Paul!" and he must somehow have hit upon a harmonic of the scale, for a faint brazen note answered him, remote and menacing, from overhead.  (200)

He, and we, are spooked. But, when justice is served, and atonement made, we sense in this place a Holy Ghost.

Page references come from the Harbrace Paperbound Edition, 1962, that I first read in 1979 [pictured]

Before writing this post, I read other bloggers' comments about The Nine Tailors.  Both were perceptive and helpful:

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